US Release Date: 12-16-2011
Directed by: Roman Polanski
- Jodie Foster, as
- Penelope Longstreet
- Kate Winslet, as
- Nancy Cowan
- Christoph Waltz, as
- Alan Cowan
- John C. Reilly as
- Michael Longstreet
John C. Reilly, Jodie Foster, Christoph Waltz and Kate Winslet in Carnage.
Carnage, based on the successful play God of Carnage, tells the tale of one meeting between two sets of parents whose son's have been in a fight. It all begins politely enough, but as the afternoon wears on it degenerates into a drunken argument over a wide range of topics that extends far beyond their children. It's filled with witty moments and great acting, but it also feels very staged and you have to accept that the visiting couple remains in the apartment on the flimsiest of excuses.
Penelope (Foster) and Michael (Reilly) are a Brooklyn couple whose 11 year old son was hit in the mouth by Nancy (Winslet) and Alan's (Waltz) son who was either armed with or carrying (depending upon who you ask) a stick.
Michael is a wholesaler and Penelope is sort of a writer. Judging by their apartment, they're fairly well off, but not in the same league as Alan and Nancy who are a corporate lawyer and financial manager respectively.
Alan is representing a pharmaceutical company in a case and his cell phone conversations constantly interrupt the proceedings. He and Penelope clash immediately and the longest as she is a socially conscious liberal activist. She is the one most concerned with handling things in what she thinks of as a civilized manner, while he is the most willing to dismiss the incident as merely boys being boys.
The biggest problem with the film is that Alan and Nancy get up to leave several times, making it as far as the elevator on occasion, but always end up back in the apartment on the flimsiest of excuses and well beyond the reason of good manners. The film runs just an hour and fifteen minutes and that's about an hour more than Alan and Nancy would probably have remained in real life.
Some stage to film productions try to expand the story to take advantage of the freedom of not being on stage, but apart from brief long shots of the playground where the hitting incident takes place that bookend the movie, the entire film is set in a Brooklyn apartment (although it was filmed in Paris due to Polanski's legal troubles). This accentuates the play like feel the movie already has. The dialogue is stylized and just feels stagey.
All four of the leads do a good job in their parts. Foster and Reilly play it biggest and occasionally it feels as though they're trying to project to a theater audience, while Waltz and Winslet are more subdued and hence more effective on screen.
Carnage is funny, but never very incisive or truly cutting. It's an amusing enough 75 minutes but unlike Alan and Nancy, you won't have a hard time leaving that apartment.
Kate Winslet, Jodi Foster, John C. Reilly and Christoph Waltz in Carnage.
The structure of the movie borrows liberally from Edward Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? Two couples meeting for the first time spend a drunken few hours together chewing up the scenery. The biggest difference though is in the quality of the dialogue. Yasmina Reza lacks Albee’s venomous wit and the conversations don’t have any real punch. Also Polanski’s direction never opens the play up cinematically like Mike Nichols was able to do with Woolf. Scott is absolutely correct that the physical movement of the characters around the apartment, and back and forth to the elevators, seems contrived. Proving what works for the stage doesn’t necessarily work for the screen.
The acting is good, which given the cast isn’t at all surprising. This definitely helps but the story is so slight that the entire success of the movie comes down to the dialogue, which just isn’t that memorable or profound. In fact the first 30 minutes is quite boring as it is filled with banal and superficial topics as the two couples get to know each other while editing their true personalities. Not until Kate Winslet tosses her cookies all over the other couple’s coffee table does the movie pick up any steam.
For the last 30 minutes or so the dialogue finally begins to crackle as these characters peel away the layers of superficiality and begin to reveal their true selves. The theme of the story is hypocrisy and how we often feign a social conscious or polite public persona that cares about our neighbors, when in fact we often don’t really give a shit.
All four of these people turn out to be not that likable. The men are both callous and just want to drink their whiskey and smoke cigars while the women are whiny and shrewish. Not exactly original is it? At least the story treats both the liberal and the conservative fairly (as represented by Foster and Waltz respectively). It dislikes them equally. All of them at one point refer to this as the worst day of their lives. Watching Carnage won’t make it the worst day of your life but it certainly won’t be the best either.
Christoph Waltz and Jodie Foster in Carnage
In an interview with Elizabeth Day for The Guardian/The Observer, on Saturday 21 January 2012, writer Yasmina Reza described her inspiration for the play God of Carnage, in which this movie is based on. At her son's school there was a fight between two boys. She told of running into the mother of the boy whose tooth was broken in the fight. She told Yasmina that the other parents did not even call her. Yasmina told the reporter, "I thought, 'This is an incredible theme.'" She then wrote the play in three months, and it shows.
The entire meeting between the two sets of parents is unconvincing. As Scott wrote, the visiting couple's reasons for staying are unrealistic. The meeting would have been so uncomfortable that they would have used any and all excuses to end it and get out of there, yet they turn around and come back in at the mere offer of coffee? Waltz's character is constantly getting business calls. He could have, should have and in reality, would have used that as an excuse to leave.
Over the course of the evening, these four adults act more and more childish. They become far too candid with each other. They bicker about all types of things that have little or nothing to do with the subject at hand. They even belittle their spouses in front of the other couple. None of this rang true. Had the script mentioned that they were friends or distantly related, I would have bought the situation better. In my opinion as a parent, these four people do not act in this situation as I believe people in the real world would.
The most honest scenes are when one couple makes fun of the other when they think the other cannot hear them. After Winslet vomits, she and Waltz clean up in the bathroom and complain about how awful Foster's cobbler tastes, even though moments before they complimented her on it. When Waltz walks into the living room he hears Foster and Riley making fun of Waltz's nickname for Winslet.
Patrick wrote that the story treats all of their political opinions fairly. That may be true, but my favorite character was the conservative Waltz. He lays into the liberal minded Foster a couple of times, "I saw your friend Jane Fonda on TV the other day. Made me want to run out and buy a Ku Klux Klan poster." Later he tells Foster that he has been to Africa, after she tells him of her book she is writing about it. "Don't you tell me about Africa. I know all about suffering in Africa!" She yells at him, even though she has never lived there. The end of the film even acknowledges that Waltz's opinion that boys will be boys proves to be the correct one.
Patrick also wrote that all four of these people are unlikable. I agree that under these circumstances they are all unlikable, but on their own we would likely sympathize with them much better. This meeting brought out the worst in all of them.
Photos © Copyright Sony Pictures Classics (2011)